Women of Wonder in Hiding: What Can Classic Science Fiction Offer Young Women?

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Does classic science fiction have anything to offer to young readers, especially young women? In recent years I’ve read reviewers providing trigger warnings about older SF having no women writers, almost no female characters, claiming stories were rife with sexism and misogyny. How true are those charges?

I just finished listening to the new audiobook editions of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One edited by Robert Silverberg and The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2A and The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume 2B edited by Ben Bova. When the Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) formed in 1965 they began giving out annual awards called Nebulas. Members decided to vote for their favorite stories to create a series of anthologies that recognize the classic works of older science fiction published before the award era.

Out of 48 stories in the first three volumes, only three women writers—C.L. Moore, Judith Merril, and Wilmar H. Shiras—were included. C.L. Moore’s stories were as a coauthor with her husband Henry Kuttner, so only two stories were just by women. Until recently, I thought only one, but then I learned that Shiras was a woman. Is this evidence that women were excluded from science fiction?

Partners-in-Wonder-Women-and-the-Birth-of-Science-Fiction-1926-1965-by-Eric-Leif-DavinEric Leif Davin in his 2006 book, Partners in Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction 1926–1965, makes a well-documented case that women were not excluded as writers, editors, artists, in fandom, or as readers, and in most cases were welcomed. Davin carefully examined science fiction magazines from 1926–1965, finding 203 women writers who had published almost a thousand stories. It’s far from equality but showed more women participating than anyone previously thought. He also studied editorials, letters to the editors, book reviews, biographies, fanzines, con programs, histories, looking for clues to how women were accepted. Davin says there were a few men who personally opposed women coming into the genre, but for the most part, they were shouted down by other males. He also found women writers that couldn’t break into writing until they tried science fiction. Overall, Davin was convinced the genre was open to women professionally and as fans, and that women slowly entered the field well before the 1960s, a time many readers felt was the opening decade for women writers.

Decade Women Writers Stories
1920s 6 17
1930s 25 62
1940s 47 209
1950s 154 634

Partners in Wonder is a fascinating history. Unfortunately, it’s a shame it’s so damn expensive: almost $50 for the paperback, and just a few dollars cheaper for the Kindle edition. Evidently, it’s meant for the academic market, so it should be available at most university libraries. I wish that the Kindle edition was priced like a novel because it’s a readable history that corrects many myths and misconceptions about women in the genre. (A significant portion of this book can be read at Google Books.)

Children-of-the-Atom-by-Wilmar-H.-ShirasWhile reading Davin’s history I also read “In Hiding” by Wilmar H. Shiras, which first appeared in the November 1948 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction. John W. Campbell, the conservative editor of Astounding, said this when “In Hiding” was voted 1st Place in the readers poll, “Wilmar H. Shiras sent in her first science fiction story, ‘In Hiding.’ I liked it and bought it at once. Evidently, I was not alone in liking it: it has made an exceptional showing in the Lab here—the sort of showing, in fact, that Bob Heinlein, A. E. van Vogt and Lewis Padgett made with their first yarns. I have reason to believe we’ve found a new front-rank author.” Shiras wrote four more stories in the series to create a fix-up novel, Children of the Atom (1953 Gnome Press). Many older fans fondly remember that novel, even if they didn’t know Shiras was a woman. (I thought Wilmar was the male version of Wilma.) Shiras only wrote a handful of stories after that, and then disappeared. Why?

In Hiding” is about a school psychologist discovering a brilliant boy named Tim who hid behind his B-average grades. Thirteen-year-old Tim eventually reveals in confidence to the psychologist he has several secret identities, even making money publishing stories and essays, as well as completing several college correspondence degrees. Tim hid his intelligence because at three he learned that other people, young and old, resented people smarter than themselves. I wondered while reading this story if Wilmar Shiras was using her story as a metaphor for how women hid their intelligence from men. The second story, “Opening Doors,” features a young girl. She had to hide her intelligence by pretending to be insane.

Partners in Wonder convinced me that women writers were welcomed by the science fiction community. Most women were not interested in science fiction. But back then, most people weren’t interested in science fiction. It was not socially acceptable to read science fiction before Star Trek (1966) and Star Wars (1977). It was a shunned subculture, considered geeky,  nerdy, uncool, and only pursued by social zeroes.

Which brings me back to my original question: What does classic science fiction have to offer young readers today, especially young women? Most bookworms prefer new stories and books. Classic science fiction is no more popular than classic literature with young readers. But classics have always appealed to some readers? Why?

In a popular Facebook group devoted to science fiction, I’ve read several accounts by young women listing their favorite books, and sometimes they are classic science fiction, even titles by authors who get trigger warnings about being sexist or misogynistic. I’ve asked them if they don’t have gender concerns, and some of them have told me not everything is about gender. And it is true, much of classic science fiction is about ideas, ignoring gender, sex, and romance. Modern science fiction stories by men and women writers can deal with gender and readily present female characters, but then gender is a popular subtext to all kinds of fiction today. Is it fair to single out SF’s past when other genres were just as sexist in their past? We’ve all changed, and we will all continue to change.

Astounding-Science-Fiction-March-1950-with-Shiras-getting-the-coverI believe one reason young people read old science fiction is to study those changes, and study how people in the past looked at their future, our present. It’s quite revealing to learn what doesn’t change and what does, and why. Another reason to read classic SF is to search for all those pioneer women writers who were hiding in plain sight. In a recent Book Riot essay, “Women Who Imagined the Future: Science Fiction Anthologies by Women” I listed six new and seven out-of-print books that collected stories by women writing science fiction. I don’t believe any of those anthologists discovered Wilmar H. Shiras, and I wonder just how many of Davin’s 203 women writers are yet to be rediscovered? Reading their stories will tell us how women of wonder imagined us, their future. Have we failed them, or lived up to their hopes?

Listening to all three volumes of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame showed me not all science fiction stories considered classic by science fiction writers in the 1960s are still classic today. I wonder if the SFWA voted today would they pick an entirely different lineup of the best SF stories of 1926–1964, and maybe include far more women writers. “In Hiding” was my favorite story from volume 2B, and I wrote about why at Worlds Without End. I hope it gets included in some future feminist SF anthology, and I hope Children of the Atom gets reprinted.

We should not ignore the past, even if it’s offensive, but study older pop culture to see how we’ve grown. We should continually search the past for the pioneers whose anticipated who we’d become, the one that resonates with our best humanistic beliefs. A great example of this is “The Machine Stops” by E.M. Forster. Not by a woman writer, or even a science fiction writer. But this 1909 story, featuring a woman protagonist who lives a life much like ours, living alone, but participating in a worldwide social network. She is essentially a blogger. Science fiction has never been about predicting the future, but about speculating about the fears we want to avoid, and the dreams we want to create in reality.

I wonder if the members of SFWA held a vote on classic stories in 2018 would any of the stories from the first three volumes of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame be selected? Time changes our view of what’s great about the past. What has fifty years taught us? Surely, we must see different classics today.

What we need are Hindsight Hugo and Nebula awards, where we give awards to stories that have stood the test of time. We could even have 100, 75, 50, 25-year trails, so in 2018 we’d reevaluate stories for 1918, 1943, 1968, 1993. If we had a 200-year trail, we could award a Hugo to Mary Shelley for Frankenstein.

Then every 25 years, the years would be reevaluated and we’d see what stories last, or which are rediscovered.

JWH

Wide Sargasso Sea–Sex and Madness

Jean Rhys explored the depths of the feminine mind living in a masculine dominated society.  Rhys wrote many stories and novels before becoming famous late in life with Wide Sargasso Sea, a literary prequel to  Jane Eyre by Charlotte BrontëWide Sargasso Sea (1966) can be read without any knowledge of Jane Eyre (1847), and is a completely stand-alone novel.  Jean Rhys gives a 20th century explanation to a mystery in a 19th century novel, and I can’t help believe that is to a certain degree psychologically, and maybe sexually, autobiographical.  Both Rhys and her character started out life in the West Indies and ended up living in England, both dying there.

jean rhys

Although Jane Eyre and Wide Sargasso Sea are novels, I wonder if we can read the minds of their authors in their stories.  Both books closely follow their characters, with Brontë anticipating stream-of-conscious and Rhys using multiple first person stream-of-conscious.  Even though Rhys makes Wide Sargasso Sea completely self-contained as a story, it does cleverly use Bertha Antoinetta Mason from Jane Eyre as a starting point for her story.  Both authors use their story to express views on the role of women in society, and to show how they are oppressed on many levels.  In a way, Rhys attacks Brontë for copping out, because she uses the tragedy of Bertha Antoinetta Mason/Antoinette Cosway to undermine Brontë’s happy ending.

Wide-Sargasso-Sea

A good part of Wide Sargasso Sea is it’s setting, and the history of life in the West Indies just after slavery was abolished.  First we follow Antoinette as a child so we can see her mother, a woman who has lost her husband, and must care for two children with no income.  We see her descend into insanity.  Antoinette grows up with black servants whose charity saves these poor whites, who the ex-slaves refer to as white cockroaches.  The black people of the story vary greatly in personality, ethnicity and ethicality.   The novel explores many themes, the prominent one deals with sex and madness, but it also deals with the confrontation of the races in the 1830s West Indies, and the lush tropical life there.  Nature is oppressive in both weather and the emotional moods it inspires in the people.  All the characters suffer from a languid disposition because of the atmosphere and biosphere.  In this steamy jungle locale there is a lot of sex, repression and sexual oppression going on.

I have not read Rhys other novels and stories, but from the introduction to my edition of Wide Sargasso Sea, she had lot of affairs that ended badly, and often lived at the bottom of society depended on the generosity of men that weren’t always good to her.  That’s why I felt her novel is autobiographical to a degree.  Rhys wasn’t locked in a room for years, but she did live in isolated exile for years.

I also feel Brontë used Jane Eyre to express her gender repression and desires.  In both books, women lives are contrasted with those of slaves and servants.  And I can’t wonder if Rhys felt contempt for Brontë when she gave Jane a happy ending with Edward Rochester.  Rochester is unnamed in Wide Sargasso Sea, but he’s shown with varying levels of sympathy, but ultimately he’s seen as cruel and self-serving.  He’s a tragic hero in Jane Eyre, but a tragic villain in Wide Sargasso Sea.

Another theme in Wide Sargasso Sea is Voodoo.  Christophine is an old black woman that cares for Antoinette her whole life before she goes to England.  She sides with the whites, and the blacks fear her, because they believe she has special powers.  Christophine always tells people they are foolish to think such thoughts, but we are given one powerful scene to believe otherwise.  Sex is always at the periphery of this novel, but it comes to the forefront at a hallucinatory peak in the story, where passion, madness, and maybe Voodoo all come together.

The Rochester character often tells the island people, both white and black that they don’t know how to hide their feelings, but he’s often surprised when they apparently can read his mind or predict his future.  Even the black children boldly state the fate of the white people with sharp obviousness that the Englishman finds unnerving.  At first this man is patronizing to the black people, defending them to his wife, but slowly he realizes they know more than he does, at least about their world, where he is an invader.

I wish I knew how much Rhys remembered of her island upbringing when she wrote this book.  Her first sixteen years were lived in the West Indies before she moved to England and Europe.  How much research did she do about the island life for the novel?  And most important of all, are there any novels written by people living in the islands in the 1830s?  How can we know if this 1966 novel represents a true picture of the West Indies in the 1830s?

Wide Sargasso Sea is on many Best Books lists.

 

JWH – 8/29/14

The Tyranny of Hormones

Why are tits so much more dazzling than anything else in reality?  I mean women’s tits.  And how do molecules in our brain make us think human breasts are the epitome of beauty, while convincing us that all other mammalian glands are gross?  Why aren’t guys mesmerized by cow udders?  Those hormones are some pretty amazing chemicals.

Thursday, a young women leaned over right in front of me to get something out of her backpack and a large vista of hanging breasts bulged in front of my eyes.  Evidently my heart is strong, because I didn’t have a heart attack.  As an old man of sixty, I am quite grateful for such unexpected revelations of evenly tanned globes of fatty flesh, but I have to wonder why my hormones are still active.  What’s the point?

My age, physical appearance and lack of wealth preclude any success with young women, or even women of my own age, and even though my hormones are more than willing, my equipment is unreliable at best, and my little swimmers are old and tired and probably couldn’t make it all the way to the egg anyway.  I’m sure my DNA can’t replicate like it once did.

Why won’t my reproductive hormones leave me alone?  I’ve been looking down women’s dresses for 60 years, why hasn’t it gotten old?

If my appetite hormones didn’t insist that weighing 235 pounds was so wonderful, maybe the tools of my sexual hormones would work better and I could at least attract sixty-year-old women.  But what’s the point?  I have no need of children, so why do my hormones keep insisting I reproduce?

Why do our hormones torment us so?  They make us moody and angry, or depressed and lethargic, or jumpy and nervous.  I suppose there might have been a time in my life when all my hormones worked in harmony, but that was long ago.  It’s just so pathetic to be old, bald and fat and having my hormones constantly whispering to my mind that I should go make some babies.  Even my sperm are laughing at that.

Why can’t I have reasonable hormones.  Why can’t I have sensible old man hormones instead of dirty old man chemistry?

And if I’m not having sex fantasies, I’ll be fantasizing about chocolate chip cookies.  Isn’t that bizarre?   It’s like being possessed by  demons.

Think of all the hormones it would be wonderful to have?  I want to be horny to write great novels.  Now that would be a useful urge for an old man.  It doesn’t require a lot of energy or sarcastic rejecting females.

My body is breaking down and I seriously need to lose some weight.  Yet, my inner chemistry insists on staying fat.  Where’s the biological logic in that?

Wouldn’t it be great if we were born with little knobs that allowed us to adjust our hormone levels.  I got two useless nipples.  Imagine if they had been dials for sex and hunger hormone levels.  Our whole culture has indoctrinated us to think sex is the most wonderful experience in all of nature.  But if we could turn off that urge would we think it so wonderful?  If we could turn down the sex dial to zero would we be miserable, or would we think, “Wow, peace of mind is better than a piece of ass.”

And how anorexic would we all be if we could dial down our hunger hormones?

Or if we could dial down the sex, would we all settle for being happy and fat?

JWH – 9/8/12

Mommy, I’ve Gotta Go To Number 3, Bad

Now that my friends and I are in our fifties I’m amazed that the differences between the sexes remain so baffling and mysterious, and still such a huge topic of conversation.  A lady friend reminded me of this recently when she asked, “Don’t men feel romantic like women do?”  She had gone through a bad divorce and was gearing up to reenter the battle of the sexes, and I think she was wary of being fooled again.  She leaned over and whispered embarrassedly, “You know, when a man is inside a women, when they’re having sex, don’t men feel a psychic bond with women?”

I told her I couldn’t answer for all men but I said it helps to picture men in simple terms.  “Remember when we were kids, and we needed to go to the bathroom?”

“Yes,” she replied surprised by the change of subjects.

“You’d say, ‘Mommy, I’ve got to go to number 1’ or ‘number 2.’”

“Yeah,” she said giving me an odd look.

“Well, sex for men is number 3.”

“That’s disgusting.  That’s the most horribly unromantic thing I’ve ever heard.  I don’t think it’s true.”

“Okay, think back to all your boyfriends and husbands.  How often did they want to have sex and how often did you want to have sex?”

She open her mouth to argue back immediately, and then paused, “OK, I can see what you mean.”

I’m reading a book called Why Women Have Sex by Cindy M. Meston and David M. Buss and it makes it abundantly clear that women are complicated, giving 237 reasons why women have sex.  As a male, I found it very informative, because it explained 237 reasons why I seldom got laid. 

Why Women Have Sex feels like a freshman survey textbook, and reading it suggests that both men, and women, will need graduate work, if not a doctorate before they will understand female sexuality.  There is no need to write a book about why men have sex.  Their physiology programs them to reproduce.  They feel this programming as a strong biological urge that requires release.  Thus, the reference to number 3.

My lady friend complained about science intruding into the topic.  “What about romance?”

“Some men are romantic and some are not,” I replied.  “But I don’t think it’s connected to sex, but I’m not sure.”  I went on to explain a story in the book Why Women Have Sex, which illustrates my point. 

I can’t remember the exact details, but the book described a small mammal that came in two species.  One was monogamous and one was not.  Scientists eventually found a chemical in the monogamous species that wasn’t in the other.  They injected the chemical into the life-long bachelor species, and they became monogamous. 

All I can tell my friend is maybe some men have a romantic gene and others don’t.  If women ever get an over-the-counter test for the monogamy hormone, guys we’re in trouble.  And what if science creates a monogamy pill?  Will men have to take their faithful drug every evening when their mates take their birth control pill?

I’ve talked to a number of women about this conversation and they all dislike it.  They don’t like science analyzing human nature.  One lady said she wanted men to be like my blogging friend Carl.  I was amazed at this because it was many months ago when a few women in the office read Carl’s comments to one of my blogs and they all immediately loved his romantic ways.  Evidently romantic guys are memorable.  Notice that my lady friend above never asked why men wanted sex, she just wanted to know if men were romantic like women.  If fact, she implied she didn’t want to believe that men were unromantic.

I’m reading Why Women Have Sex because women’s sexual urges are baffling, not as simple as going to number 3.  If women were like men, we’d all be mating like Bonobos.  If men were romantic like women, wouldn’t the world be very different?  That might be the answer to my friend. 

Women should be reading this book more than men because it explains why women love and hate men.  But time and again my lady friends are repelled by the details I relay to them from the book.  So I’ll suggest another topic for Meston and Buss.  They should write a book about why women hate scientific inquiries into romance.  Whenever I talk to a woman about relationships and suggest there might be a biological basis, most women get annoyed.  It’s anti-romantic. 

I know its terrible to generalize like this, but it does appear to be a common attitude among the women I know.  One lady friend gave me a clue though.  She said science might explain animal biology, but it can’t explain human behavior.  I wonder if this is a religious bias.  Are humans divine and unexplainable by research, and animals are lowly aspects of the physical world that can be explained.  It makes me wonder if romance and religion have similar biological causes, and for some people it’s territory that scientists shouldn’t explore. 

JWH – 12/22/9

The Gods of Vampires

Every vampire has a god, and since the advent of the novel, those gods have been writers.  Before the printing press, storytellers were the creators of vampires, and word of mouth published endless variations of vampires that spawned unique species of monsters in each culture and country.  Superstition and the love of the story kept the vampire immortal throughout the centuries.  It’s very easy to know each god of today’s vampire, because the names of their creators are famous, boldly printed across the books from which give them creation.

When did Sex in the City urban women deem vampires fuckworthy?  And most of all, when did American heartland save-myself-for-marriage tweens and teens decide that creatures of the night make great Mr. Rights?  The new gods of vampires, women writers, have changed the romantic ratability of the undead.  Geez, it’s hard enough to deal with the fact my omega male body is so unworthy compared to human alpha males, but now women seek to mate with guys who have immortality, inhuman strength, and supernatural wealth as hot sexual attributes.  Man, now I’m really out of the sexual rat race.

What have these new gods wrought on the fictional landscape of our world?  I wonder if accepting the undead into the American melting pot is also happening in other multicultural societies around the world?  Storytellers have always been mythmakers and creators of imaginary pop-cultural stars.  Homer had a huge hit with his creation, Ulysses.  The whole mystery genre seems to have converted to writing character book series hoping to hit one out of the park by creating the next Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple.  Now both the mystery market and horror genre are churning endless variations on the vampire theme, each hoping to create an iconic vampire or vampire slayer. 

In my review of Dracula by Bram Stoker I took a backasswards approach to understanding vampires.  I falsely assumed writers were describing their vampires rather than creating them, by observing what they thought was the current pop-culture concept of a vampire.  And to a degree writers do steal their ideas from their peers and mentors.  This morning I had the revelation that every vampire is created in the image of their god. 

If I was to write a series of vampire stories, I’d invent a science fictional vampire because I like science fiction more than I do horror.  I’m not all that keen on bloodsucking, so I’d find some other way for my vampires to acquire the life essence of their victim, maybe a device that transfuses specific hormones or proteins that could be used to enhance health and thinking for a cyborg vampire.  If I wrote a series of books about my new high-tech-vamp that became successful, it would make me a god of a fictional creation, but I would have also changed the archetype of the vampire.

When I read Dracula I thought Bram Stoker had studied folk culture and had assembled his vampire, Count Dracula, from a selection of vampire models already in existence.  Now that I’m using the god metaphor for creators of fiction, I’m not so sure.  Count Dracula, and every successful vamp ever created by a wordsmith could each be a unique creation, fashioned in the image of their creator, so to say.

This explains why the current crop of vampires are less violent and very romantic – all the wildly successful new vampires are created by women authors.  Men writers want monsters to slay, while women want romantic retelling of the beauty and the beast myth.

Now I know my feminist friends are going to howl at my sexist generalization, but lets look at the evidence.   Here’s an easy one.  Women love Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.  To make it suitable for the average guy, Seth Grahame-Smith created Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.  I could rest my case there, but I’ll go for overkill instead.

I think I can safely say that the Twilight series is mostly popular with women, and girls.  It’s much less obvious, but I’d say the Anne Rice and Charlaine Harris vampire books are also more popular with women readers then men.  True Blood, the HBO version of the Sookie Stackhouse Southern Vampire Mysteries, has been transformed by its producers to have a unisex appeal (mixing love, romance, sex and violence), so I’m only talking about the Charlaine Harris books for now.  If you compare these women vampire stories to Blade and Van Helsing movies, which are obviously targeted to male audiences, you can see the difference between the vampires and their creators.

Red blooded American males love violent movies.  They want the moral issues to be black and white so there is no ethical squeamishness to full-throttle slaying by the good guys.  Literary movies that want to question violence will introduce many shades of gray and ambiguity, but for the most part, us guys like our action films, monster movies, cop shows, sci-fi, thrillers, war flicks, and westerns to be non-stop kill, kill, kill.  We accepted feminism to the point that in recent years the good guys can include hot action babes on their teams, who can also kill, kill, kill with the best of the guys.  We’ll even accept women as squad leaders, as in Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.

Now, I’m not saying there aren’t plenty of women who love a dab of violence in their books and movies, but they seem to want the volume of violence turned down.  Women writers accept that vampires are dangerous cold blooded killers, but they keep most of their hunting off stage, ignore that vampires are evil, and tame them by having their creatures of the night only hunt animals, drink artificial blood or prey on the scum of the earth, humans they figure humanity can do without.

The famous dictate of writing teachers is to write what you know, but I observe instead, that writers write about what they love to read.  Women love romance stories, and the influx of women writers has changed the nature of vampires in pop culture in the last few decades.  If you study romance novels, a category of fiction dominated by women writers and readers, you’ll find two general types of stories in the genre:  the purely romantic and the hot-and-spicy romantic.  To be clear, I’m calling some romance novels hot-and-spicy, to be nice, but the heat on that spice goes all the way to XXX. 

Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series is very close to the Pride and Prejudice end of the spectrum of romance, while Charlaine Harris writes stories well into the soft core porn range of romance books.  And if you are converting Mr. Darcy into the undead, women writers know their readers won’t feel the emotional attraction for a protagonist if he’s too evil or looks like he belongs in a Mad Max flick.  Thus the What Not to Wear overhaul of vampires.

A young woman at my office asked another young women, “Which of the undead do you think are the sexiest?”  That’s not a question you would have overheard two Victorian women discussing.  I’d say the vampire has gotten the role of most eligible supernatural bachelor more often than all the other types of undead combined, with hunky werewolves a distant second in popularity.  Zombies and mummies just don’t clean up well.  Although J. K. Rowling, strangely enough seems to prefer werewolves over vamps, so maybe kids like furry love romance.

If you think about it, the lady gods of fiction have transformed all the popular genre fiction in the last fifty years.  Look how wildly successful Lois McMaster Bujold, Catherine Asaro and Anne McCaffrey have been with science fiction readers.  Genre fiction has been liberated by females.  I don’t know why it took me so long to realize why modern vampires are so different.  To be honest, I didn’t expect women to shake things up so much.

But I’m still puzzled as to why women find vampires sexy.  If I was a vampire and had to drink blood, I’d want to dine on women, and it would be a sexual attraction, but it would still feel like rape.  But as a male human, vampires seem as sexual appealing as sharks and bears, but then I’ve always identified with the beast, and not the beauty.

JWH – 7/23/9